TVNZ’s latest cooking show wants to challenge our assumptions about people living with dementia. Tara Ward tunes in.
What’s it about?
The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes is a new reality series that sees award-winning chef (and former My Kitchen Rules judge) Ben Bayly help eight volunteers with dementia staff their own restaurant. Four out of every five New Zealanders will know someone with dementia during their lifetime, and The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes wants to prove that people with dementia can still make a valuable contribution to society. “Could this experiment help these volunteers rediscover the people they used to be?” the show asks.
Over the next four weeks, the volunteers will learn a variety of new skills, gradually taking on the responsibilities of running a successful restaurant. The concept began in Japan as the Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in 2017, and was later adapted into a television show in the UK. The New Zealand series is made in partnership with Dementia NZ and features professor Lynnette Tippett, a dementia specialist who provides support for Bayly and the volunteers.
This gently-made observational series gives us a glimpse of what life with dementia can be like, in a way we haven’t seen on television before. “I hope through a show like this, people will see dementia in a different light,” Bayley says as we meet the eight volunteers. They include Dawn, a family violence counsellor who was diagnosed with young onset Alzheimers at age 56 and lives in a rest home. Suz was 58 and working as a personal assistant at Auckland Council when she was diagnosed, while Mark has Parkinson’s as well as dementia, which makes co-ordination difficult.
Each volunteer experiences dementia differently, but they all miss having a sense of purpose. Having lived full and varied lives before their diagnosis, they speak of their frustration and grief at suddenly being unable to work, drive and live independently. There’s a loss of identity and a wish to be useful. “My whole world has changed,” Dawn tells us. “I’m not good for much,” Mark tells Bayly. “Just give me something to do,” Suz says.
This is where the Restaurant That Makes Mistakes comes in. Bayly and his team spend two days teaching the volunteers how a restaurant works, training them in front-of-house, food preparation and meal plating skills. The volunteer families are the restaurant’s first customers, and on opening day Bayly admits he’s a little nervous. He’s not the only one. “This could ruin the reputation of your restaurant forever,” volunteer Charmaine says.
But Bayly has his own motivation to make this restaurant work – his grandmother died last year with dementia, and he speaks of how the illness robbed her of her dignity. Bayly believes everyone has a place in a restaurant, and he treats the volunteers with patience and kindness. His team are also mindful of not putting the volunteers under pressure or stress, which prevents the show from ever feeling exploitative. This isn’t about turning illness into entertainment, but about supporting the volunteers to thrive, while also giving viewers an insight into a condition many of us will eventually encounter first hand.
There are sad moments, but there’s also an uplifting sense of acceptance. Each volunteer has their own strengths, and there’s understanding when things become too much. Every win is celebrated, no matter the size: a beautiful plate of handmade ravioli, a cheery welcome to a customer, an order successfully delivered. There’s an easy camaraderie between the volunteers, and a compassion and respect that shines through in every conversation.
There’s also plenty of laughter. As Marilyn puts it, dementia might be a serious condition, but “having a bit of a laugh about it is fine”. As Bayley reassures Graeme that he hasn’t cut the onions too chunky, Dawn pipes up. “Put it this way, they’re just accepting anything we do right now.” Bevan jokes the name of the restaurant means they’re obliged to make mistakes (“see if you can find the mistakes I make,” he tells a customer), and when Bayly asks the volunteers what they think of their first plated meal, Clifford chuckles. “It beats boiled rice,” he says.
It’s more “tough to watch” than “bad”, but much of episode one features the volunteers and their families talking about their experiences with dementia. I found this confronting at times, purely because of my own fears about what a dementia diagnosis would mean. Bayly acknowledges as much in the show: “It’s hard not to think about your own life when you speak to people with dementia,” he says. “It gives me a lot of perspective.”
But it would be wrong for a show this considered to shy away from the realities of the illness, and it’s these personal insights that give us an appreciation for what the volunteers are doing. Unlike most reality cooking shows, the success of this restaurant won’t be measured by the number of diners through the door or late night turnover, but by these volunteer’s feelings of pride and self-esteem at being part of something special.
Watch it. The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes wants to help people with dementia, but it’s also helping viewers by quietly challenging our assumptions of what living with dementia means. It wants us to consider how we create a more inclusive, flexible society that allows everyone in our community to thrive, which is something reality television rarely does. “People with dementia can still live a rich life,” Marilyn tells us, and this is the series to prove it. In this restaurant, mistakes can be a beautiful thing.
The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes screens on TVNZ 1 on Sunday nights at 8.30pm and streams on TVNZ+.